Lots goes into SEO strategy around canonical vs 301 redirects. If you are a regular blog writer, knowing when to use canonical vs 301 redirect is very helpful. First, it will allow you to clean up mistakes easily and effectively. Second, if you’re a regular blogger, you know the challenge of writing about the same topic. In an effort to avoid cannibalizing your own words, it’s important to know which of your articles matter more than another.
Let’s start with some definitions:
Canonical tags are tags within your articles that tell Google that this content is the “main” or “primary” selection over any others on your website on the same topic/keyword. If you have duplicate content on your site, a canonical tag is very useful. Whether you have published more than one article about the same topic, or you have attempted to optimize for a keyword/phrase on multiple articles, canonical tags help Google understand your wish for which article to index over the others.
This challenge often comes up with clients who have become stronger writers over time and want to publish something new on a familiar topic. By adding a canonical tag, you effectively tell Google which of your articles you prefer for both indexation and hopefully performance on Google.
It’s not a guarantee that Google will always select what you canonicalize, but it is one of the only ways if you have duplicate content to say: pick this piece over the others.
A 301 redirect is a permanent change made to a URL telling Google that the URL has moved from one location to another.
301 redirects are needed when:
- there was a publishing error (you saved a default or incorrect URL and want to fix it)
- you reverse optimized an article (this is SEO optimizing after writing and publishing) and need to change the URL to reflect your edits
- you added more keywords to an article and want them reflected in the URL
- you want to trim your URL so it’s shorter
The most important thing to know about a 301 redirect is that it eliminates the need to find your “old links” so you don’t lose clicks or traffic to your site. By adding a 301 redirect, your old URL now points to your new one. Then, everywhere your old URL lives, if someone clicks it, they get the new URL. It’s very efficient for fixing problems and ensuring your updated content still directs traffic to the right place.
So in the debate about canonical vs 301 redirects, they are used in very different ways. They are also tools to use intelligently as your website grows.
How to use canonical tags:
There are coding ways to add canonical tags and then there are tools.
Before you begin, you can check your canonical tags by either viewing your code on each individual page or using a tool like the Moz toolbar (this is free, but it only works in Chrome at the time of writing this post).
To view the source code follow these steps:
- Open the page you want to review
- Right click on the page to see “view source”
- Once the code is open, look for the phrase: link rel=”canonical”
It should look like this:
Once you have located the canonical tag, ask yourself if this is the best canonical tag for the content you have published.
Setting the canonical tag
It you don’t see a canonical tag, or the tag has been applied to the wrong article, you can use a tool like Yoast to fix it. I’m not paid by Yoast, but in my years as an SEO consultant, Yoast is one of the easiest and least expensive tools on the market that does both canonical tags and 301 redirects. You can also use All-in-one SEO for the same thing. Both tools will cost you around $99 a year, and they simplify the whole 301 vs canonical experience.
Once you have Yoast’s premium product, choosing the canonical tag is easy. At the bottom of your Yoast block is an “advanced” option. Click that and it will open a box that looks like this:
Type into the box your selected canonical URL and then save. You’re all set.
What to do when you have a canonical vs 301 redirect decision to make
If you have duplicate content that is getting traffic you don’t want to lose, the question you have to wrestle with is what is more valuable: consolidating the traffic to one main URL or allowing all of the content to live online?
Consolidating the duplicate content to one main URL means doing a 301 redirects on all of the non-appointed pieces and adding a canonical tag to the one you decide to keep. This will help to clear up any confusion in search.
If you are concerned about losing any of the SEO traffic by redirecting, because the articles each rank for various, non-overlapping keywords, it make be wiser to keep the articles uniquely online until such time as they begin to show more keywords that are alike. You can still choose to add a canonical tag to the article you anticipate performing the best. That can help shift Google’s understanding of your article and move it in a specific direction, but it’s not a guarantee.
In this case, I would flag the articles and watch to see how the keywords shift over time. If you’re working on high intent keywords, this may happen quickly. Be sure to set your reminders to watch the articles so you don’t miss any fluctuations in the wrong direction.
Canonical vs Redirect Tag FAQs
What if I posted my content on another website and Google gives them the canonical tag?
Before digging too deeply here, you want to first ask yourself if the website offered you the canonical tag or if you are making an assumption that you should have it? The truth is, it’s in every website’s best interest to keep the canonical tag for articles published on their domain. They do this to build their own body of work, so don’t be surprised if your article is canonicalized to a site other than your own unless it’s clearly discussed that this practice wouldn’t happen.
And if it does, it’s a tricky question because in theory, once the canonical tag is set, Google should follow those instructions, but I have seen my own content published on Medium with the canonical tag set to Crownsville Media and Medium getting the canonical tag not us. It’s not common, but it can happen.
To fix this issue, I went to the site my content was published on and opened up the article and revisited the canonical tag section. I validated that the canonical was set to the right place and saved the article. I then went to the original article and set the canonical tag to itself assuring that Google sees that the article is self-canonicalized.
Does every page need a canonical tag?
Yes, every article should be identified as the “main version” of this article to prevent any scrapers or republications of your content from being deemed the preferred URL one over your own.
How do I know if my canonical tag is working?
To do this you want to look at your page source code. To do this on a PC, right click to see “view page source.” Once the code is showing, click “control F” (control find) and type in the search box “canonical, ” this will give you the string of code that shows the canonical URL. Inspect that this URL is the one you want assigned as the canonical tag. If it is, you’re set.
If it’s not, you want to use your SEO tool (Yoast or All-in-one SEO are two we use) to select the URL you want assigned as your canonical tag. Save the page when you’re finished and go to Google Search Console to inspect your URL and validate that your correction was updated in your code.
NOTE: this can take a few days even when you use Google’s inspection tool. If you don’t see the change right away, check back in a few days.
How do I know if my 301 redirect is working?
Follow the same steps as the “is my canonical tag working” question above but search in your source code for 301. Then, complete the inspection of your URL changes as directed.
There you have it, canonical vs 301 redirect tags for your SEO. I hope you walk away feeling reassured that choosing to issue a canonical vs 301 redirects is a case-by-case decision. I
f you’re ever unsure, it’s a great question for your SEO consultant. They should be able to help you understand which URLs are more critical to your business. Then as you make strategic decisions about duplicate content you can more confidently forge ahead with canonical or 301 redirects and know that Google is getting the best of your content, right from the source.
If you are struggling with this or other SEO challenges, please reach out for a complimentary discussion on your SEO and how we can help point your website in the right direction.